In Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” an alternate history of the Nazis winning the war, a Japanese businessman barely manages to bolt from a conference room before vomiting. The cause of this is a speaker outlining the biographies of Hitler’s inner circle, which releases into the very atmosphere a nauseating sense of evil.
Such an atmosphere pervades “Heinrich Himmler: A Life” by Peter Longerich, despite the author’s attempts to demystify Himmler.
Longerich shows a childhood warped early on. Born in turn-of-the-century Munich, a repository of macho anti-semitism, Himmler was put on his secret police path by his principal father, who authorized this “born criminal” to spy on other students.
An unathletic stamp collector, Himmler nevertheless craved the military life that was beyond his physical abilities. Despite, or maybe because of, the reports of horrific trench life that nevertheless filtered back home, Himmler begged his father to pull strings and get him into the conflict. But the war ended, and Himmler was denied his longed-for carnage.
This series of missed-opportunities for soldierly glory continued after the war. In 1920, his rescue attempt with paramilitary groups to free a comrade named Count Arco from the hangman was thwarted when the condemned man’s sentence was commuted. Membership in a Freikorp Rifle Club provided no head-breaking as well.
But then came Adolf Hitler, who, courtesy of his Beer Hall Putsch, finally gave Himmler his longed-for combat.
Achieving leadership of the SS, which Longerich attributes to Himmler’s canny ability as a political animal, Himmler had to satisfy his taste for death-dealing by remote control. But his other enthusiasm, racial breeding, would find a ready outlet. What the others dreamed, Himmler did. Hitler and company would speak of eradicating the Jewish menace, but Himmler ordered them into the showers and crematoriums, and Longerich implies it was on his own initiative.
Hitler dreamed of a “master race.” Himmler sought to breed one by not only eradicating “lesser elements” but by reducing the number of abortions, punishing homosexuality (both of which he named as the potential destroyers of the motherland; 100,000 children rescued from abortion, he argued, meant more adults for Hitler’s army), and turning his Knights-of-The-Round-Table castle into a wartime breeding ground between SS officers and imported blond maidens.
Longerich tries to reduce Himmler down in scale from supervillain to a comic opera one. He shows a heterosexual who had a child out of wedlock and cared for her and built insect rooms for SS officers to be bitten in for not taking pest control seriously.
Longerich also shows how big government can be wielded to exorcise personal demons. A repressed homosexual who clung to all-male groups, Himmler overcompensated by using his whole secret police force to hunt down what he called “the diseased.”
But even with all of Himmler’s life placed under the microscope (his fears, his sexuality, his loves, his patriotism, his racial obsessions), the reptile behind the pince nez remains. Evil can be so palpable that it can drift out of this scholarly treatment and cause the reader to vomit.